The Hail Varsity staff offers three final takeaways from Nebraska’s 27-14 win over Purdue.
It’s hard to top winning Big Ten Freshman of the Week, but I think it’s safe to say Nebraska punter Caleb Lightbourn’s performance against Purdue was the second best of his young career.
On their face, the numbers – five punts, 40 yards per punt – aren’t earth-shattering (although that is his second highest average in a game this year). However, pure distance isn’t nearly as important as placement.
Lightbourn only saw one of his punts returned, and even that return only gained four yards. Purdue started at its own 2, 10, 24, 5 and 21 following Lightbourn’s punts.
The freshman showed a new wrinkle to his game on his first punt, rolling out to his right for a rugby style punt, and it produced the best punt of his career to date as it skipped across the turf and rolled to a stop at the 2-yard line for a punt of 56 yards.
“They were running a bunch, so they were in like a 4-6 alignment where they overload on one side,” Lightbourn said. “So we knew if we rolled out we would be able to make the blocks slightly easier and it confused the defense, so they kind of didn’t know what to do. It ended up working out pretty well.”
Lightbourn tried the rugby style again on his final punt, although the results weren’t quite as positive as Robert Gregory got a hand on the punt. It traveled 28 yards before rolling out of bounds at the Purdue 21-yard line.
“We don’t practice it as much as we do regular punts,” Lightbourn said about the rugby style. “We just didn’t put a whole lot of emphasis on it this week but we ended up running it and it turned out well for one and not so well for the second one. I think we’re just going to need to practice it more and make it consistent.”
Lightbourn followed up his last great performance with another sup-par game as he averaged just over 38 yards per punt the following week. Nebraska can’t afford for that to become a trend as the Huskers will face their stiffest test yet next week when they travel to Madison to take on Wisconsin – a fact of which Lightbourn is well aware.
“It’s going to be a huge, huge deal,” Lightbourn said. “I think the main emphasis these next couple of weeks is just going to be hang time and good direction and distance and making sure my shield is communicating well and making sure that they’re calling the right plays and reading the defense. I think we’ll end up having a good next couple of weeks special teams-wise because it’s going to matter.”
I usually have a clear idea of what I want to write about for 3&Out, but this week is a little different. I have several topics in my head, from injuries to play calling to special teams. Picking one has proven difficult.
So let’s just talk a little bit about the type of team Nebraska is for a moment, shall we? Through seven games, it’s a team that people have tried to fit in a neat little box. They either fit the mold of a top 10 team or they don’t. They either deserve to be 7-0 or they don’t.
At this point, it’s clear how the team feels. They want respect, which quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. hammered home after defeating Indiana. They’re ready for a challenge, which they echoed after defeating Purdue. Well, the time has finally come to show just what the Huskers are made of.
Ohio State fell to Penn State Saturday night, which goes to show that anything can happen on any given Saturday. Yes, it’s all still out there for Nebraska to take. It’s now on the Huskers’ shoulders to make of that what they will.
Armstrong said the Huskers are “ready for anything” after Purdue. Better buckle up. The battle for the Big Ten West is truly about to begin.
We spend a lot of time each offseason talking about Nebraska’s talent level relative to the rest of the conference. Based on recruiting rankings over a good span of years, the Big Ten talent hierarchy basically breaks down like this: Ohio State and Michigan at the top; Nebraska, Penn State and Michigan State are often tightly bunched at the second level; Wisconsin and Iowa typically come next and then everyone else.
In most years, that makes Nebraska the most talented team in the West and somewhere between the third- and fifth-most talented team in the conference based on recruiting rankings. It’s an imperfect measure, but probably works as a reasonable estimate.
I mention it because what you saw the last two weeks from Nebraska was that edge. Against Indiana, it was primarily on defense. The Huskers had a ton of solo tackles, an impressive feat and one that addressed one of the concerns from the Northwestern and Illinois games. But do a few more of those solo tackles turn into big gains if Nebraska is having to make them against Ohio State? Against Michigan? Probably.
Against Purdue, you saw the edge primarily on offense. When Nebraska retook the lead in the third quarter, its touchdown drive was kept alive by a huge individual effort from Brandon Reilly to make a 28-yard catch on third-and-9. Two plays later, on second-and-11, De’Mornay Pierson-El turned a simple slant — a well-designed and well-executed play, but still a slant — into a 40-yard touchdown.
On the Huskers’ next drive, Alonzo Moore tip-toed down the sideline on a jet sweep for a 24-yard touchdown run on a day when Nebraska was finding very little room to run. Nebraska relied on big plays like that — the Huskers had seven go for 20-plus yards, Purdue had three — for the bulk of its yards on Saturday.
It’s hard to call anything that happens on a football field an “individual play,” but it was also easy to see over the past two weeks that better players have better odds of providing that extra move, that extra gear, that extra reach to make a play some other players simply can’t.
With the Huskers missing some key players, it needed that edge the past two weeks.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.